Back in the late 1960s my father drove a sporty Chevrolet Malibu with bench seats and lap belts and not much else in the way of safety features. But hanging from the rear-view mirror, he had placed a circular plastic key chain. I can still see it, white with raised green features. It had an illustration of a car being cradled from beneath by two human hands. Above the illustration in bold letters were the words “Ralph Nader Protect Us.”
Ralph Nader was (and still is), a consumer protection advocate, well-known for his 1965 book “Unsafe at any speed.” The book took the automobile industry to task for producing unsafe automobiles. When I asked my father why he hung that key chain from his rear-view mirror, he told me a story.
When he was a college student, my father drove a school bus for a local Catholic secondary school. Like all good Catholic schools, this one hung St. Christopher medals, symbols of protection, from the rear-view mirrors of their busses. For Catholics, St. Christopher is the Patron Saint of Travelers.
“The Catholic school girls would scold me if I touched that medal,” he told me.
“They made it clear it wasn’t for me. We’re not Catholic,” he concluded, tongue firmly implanted in cheek. “Ralph Nader is the closest thing we have to St. Christopher.”
While I never forgot that story, it took a while for me to get his complete meaning. As an ordained Lutheran pastor, my father knew the idea that St. Christopher is only for Catholics was theologically unsound, and not the position of the Catholic church. But it served his point in illustrating that safety is not just for some people: It is for everyone.
Back when Ralph Nader wrote “Unsafe,” the moral question of vehicle safety was perhaps simpler to grasp. After all, those were, as I noted above, the days of lap belts and not much else. Today, vehicle manufacturers push every conceivable safety advance to gain a competitive advantage. Air bags, automatically activated braking systems, even steering systems that keep drivers from drifting into adjacent lanes by nudging the wheel automatically (most likely while the driver is texting) have become all the rage.
But as we, as a society, become more and more dependent upon technology to do the little things that vehicle operators of all kinds used to do to keep everyone around them safe, like steer, control and stop their vehicles, it seems to me that the moral dimension is fading into the background. Morality is, after all, a passé subject. In its place, a new generation of technology-driven plutocrats push an age-old agenda, feigning virtue in support of higher stock values.
Now, I’m all for higher stock values earned on the basis of fair competition and safe business practices, but when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg assures a Congressional committee that he only wishes to use all of the private data that his company collects from us for “good,” I really wonder what he means exactly. Here’s hoping that Facebook never enters the transportation industry.
Speaking of the transportation industry, Elon Musk baselessly declares that Tesla’s driverless vehicles will dramatically reduce roadway fatalities. Meanwhile Brown University artificial intelligence researcher Peter Haas warns us of relying too quickly on autonomous technology and artificial intelligence systems, saying in his 2017 TedX talk that “these systems do not fail gracefully,” and pointing out that it took over 30 years before the technology for cruise control, developed in chemical plants, was finally put into vehicles where people’s lives depended on its flawless performance. By comparison, much of today’s autonomous vehicle technology is less than a decade old with no prior real-world application.
And speaking of automated systems that have recently failed ungracefully, I give you Boeing President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg. While being careful to not admit responsibility for the two recent 737 Max crashes that resulted in 346 deaths, he tells the world, through attorney-scripted talking-point tweets, that “We (meaning Boeing) own it” when it comes to safety. Then he doubles down that a software fix to the Maneuvering Characteristic Augmentation System, or MCAS, for his company’s new, aerodynamically unstable, commercial airliner, is sufficient to prevent future accidents.
Think of MCAS as the commercial airliner equivalent of that aforementioned computerized steering system that keeps texting drivers from drifting out of their lane and ask yourself, is this really a good idea for a commercial jet carrying hundreds of passengers?
I noted last week that the Aspen Institute has invited Mr. Muilenburg to speak at this June’s Ideas Festival. Given recent events, I doubt he will have much to say about the moral implications of delegating the flight handling characteristics of commercial airliners to a brand new and untested software program, in comparison to, let’s say, first using it for 30 years in an industry where lives don’t rely on its flawless performance.
Ralph Nader on the other hand, who is not invited to speak at this year’s Ideas Festival, suffered along with his family the unspeakable tragedy of losing his grand niece, Samaya Rose Stumo, in the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crash. She was 24.
The rest of us must try to find meaning in the heartbreaking irony of our nation’s most notable transportation safety advocate, who as a sort of modern-day St. Christopher believes in safety for all, losing a relative in the crash of an American-made airplane. A crash caused by engineering arrogance reminiscent of automobile manufacturing practices that he has fought for over a half century.
What it means, quite sadly, is failure.